British Columbia·Analysis

Transit referendum: Is TransLink really wasting taxpayers' money?

Since the day the Metro Vancouver transit plebiscite was announced, TransLink has been attacked for wasting taxpayers' money, but do the numbers really back that up?

TransLink has been attacked for wasting taxpayers' money, but do the numbers really back that up?

TransLink has been repeatedly called wasteful by the 'No' side, but the numbers question that assertion. (CBC)

Since the day the Metro Vancouver transit plebiscite was announced, those opposed to the proposed 0.5 per cent sales tax have repeatedly attacked TransLink for what they say is a lack of accountability and waste of taxpayers' money.

Jordan Bateman and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) have been the engine driving the No side in this campaign, calling TransLink "one of the country's most wasteful government agencies" with a "stunningly bad record of waste."

The CTF website says the "TransLink elite" want billions to pay for their "legacy dreams."

But many people on the Yes side, including many of the region's mayors and provincial politicians, take issue with the negative claims, saying TransLink is an efficiently-run organization.

So the CBC looked further to see which side the numbers are really on.

Standard indicators of transit performance

Todd Litman, the executive director with the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, is putting together a comparative transportation database looking at overall performance by region, focusing on three important indicators of transit performance.

Canadian Taxpayers Federation spokesperson Jordan Bateman has called Translink 'one of the country's most wasteful government agencies.' (CBC)

(Note: Litman has done contract work for TransLink in the past. He last conducted work for the authority in 2012. His numbers and assessments are agreed upon by a number of international experts and it is common for independent researchers to conduct work for transit authorities.)

The first of Litman's indicators is subsidy per passenger journey, or the amount of money required to carry each passenger that is not generated by fares.

The second is subsidy per passenger kilometre, or the cost of each kilometre travelled not generated by fares.

And finally, there's fare box recovery ratio, or the percentage of the transportation agency's operating budget covered by customer payment of fares.

When it come to that first indicator, Litman says Vancouver performs very well. 

"Vancouver is about average among Canadian peers, but it is outstanding compared with virtually all U.S. cities," he said. 

Litman adds that Metro Vancouver performs very well against other cities of similar size and population as well.

Subsidy per passenger journey across North America

  1. Toronto (TTC)                            $0.74
  2. Montreal (Metro)                          $1.51
  3. Metro Vancouver (TransLink)    $1.66
  4. Calgary                                      $1.68
  5. Ottawa / Gatineau (STO)              $1.86
  6. Minneapolis                                $3.18
  7. Portland                                      $3.95
  8. Denver                                        $4.94
  9. Seattle                                        $5.34
  10. Houston                                      $5.55

TransLink also performs well on subsidy per passenger kilometre. Litman said that is because of the large area it covers.

Subsidy per passenger kilometre across North America

  1. Toronto (TTC)                              $0.08
  2. Calgary                                      $0.12
  3. Metro Vancouver (TransLink)    $0.13
  4. Montreal (Metro)                          $0.17
  5. Ottawa / Gatineau (STO)              $0.17
  6. Minneapolis                                $0.45
  7. Houston                                      $0.51
  8. Seattle                                        $0.51
  9. Denver                                        $0.51
  10. Portland                                      $0.53

The third measuring stick is how much of TransLink's operating budget is recovered at the fare box.

Litman said that number is a function of balancing cost of fares and getting as much money back as possible for operations.

TransLink has the highest average fare for major metro authorities across North America, and in return for that high fare, TransLink has the highest fare box recovery ratio outside of Toronto.

Fare box recovery ratio across North America

  1. Toronto (TTC)                              76%
  2. Metro Vancouver (TransLink)     57%
  3. Calgary                                      52%
  4. Ottawa / Gatineau (STO)              51%
  5. Montreal (Metro)                          50%
  6. Minneapolis                                31%
  7. Portland                                      27%
  8. Seattle                                        27%
  9. Denver                                        23%
  10. Houston                                      17%

TransLink executive pay

Jordan Bateman and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation has put a strong focus on executive pay as evidence of TransLink waste, especially after former CEO Ian Jarvis resigned and Doug Allen took over as interim CEO.

Jarvis has been kept on as a consultant at $30,604 per month — although this number could change based on a possible 2014 bonus that has not yet been determined.

Between Jarvis and Allen, TransLink is doling out $65,604 per month in CEO pay ($787,248 annualized).

Litman said, while the executive pay is certainly high, it doesn't have a big impact on the bottom line.

The dismissal of former TransLink CEO Ian Jarvis has not helped the authority in its fight to counteract the 'No' side's allegations of waste. (CBC)

"Executive pay represents one or two per cent of TransLink's total budget. It is not a significant factor in looking at the overall cost-efficiency of the system," he said.

Surrey transit blogger Daryl Dela Cruz has conducted research comparing the cumulative executive salaries for other metro regions in Canada. He focuses on regions rather than authorities because there are often multiple authorities per region.

Dela Cruz found that in CEO earnings per capita, Vancouver has surpassed Ottawa since Jarvis resigned and Doug Allen stepped in, but it still trails Toronto and Montreal.

One aspect of the CTF's criticism of administrative waste that holds true is outlined in the 2012 independent TransLink Efficiency Review.

In that review, the auditors say TransLink's corporate overhead costs are high relative to other systems, pointing to redundancies within the administrations of Coast Mountain Bus Company and Transit Police as a prime example.

The critics have also pointed to TransLink's unused fare gates and floundering Compass Card system — which had a combined budget of $194 million and are still not operational — as evidence of waste.

Those two infrastructure lemons don't have any readily-made comparisons, but certainly don't score any marks for TransLink, especially on the management of capital projects.

Litman adds that comparing capital management from region to region is extremely difficult because of the huge number of variables that go into each project. 

Getting bang for your transit buck?

Overall, says Litman, Vancouverites get a good bang for their transportation buck.

"Based on the standard indicators that transportation professionals use, Vancouver does very well," he said. 

Are there waste issues with the cost of TransLink executives and administration, and the unused fare gates and non-functioning Compass Card?

Absolutely. But is TransLink, as the Canadian Taxpayers Federation puts it, "One of the most wasteful government agencies in the country?"

Based on the available baseline data used by transportation industry experts, it would appear not.

To hear this story on CBC Radio One's The Early Edition, click on the audio labelled 'Is TransLink as wasteful as the 'No' side says it is?'


  • An earlier version of this article stated TransLink's fare gates and Compass Card projects were budgeted at $171 million and $220 million each. In fact the combined budget for both projects is $194 million.
    Mar 19, 2015 6:34 AM PT


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